In a 2019 debate at the Oxford Union, the famed venue associated with Oxford University where fancy people formally argue, the proposition on the table was whether it is immoral to be a billionaire. Writer Anand Giridharadas argued in the affirmative, interrogating the sins of the superrich and the false promises of billionaire philanthropy.

“They find clever new ways to pay people as little as possible and as precariously as possible. They avoid taxes illegally and legally with trillions hiding offshore. . . They lobby for public policies that don’t benefit the public interest – in fact, [they] cost the public interest but enrich them. They form monopolies that asphyxiate competition. They cause social problems to make a profit . . . ,” Giridharadas noted, hammering on the serial misdeeds of the billionaire class. “And they use philanthropy, some of the spoils of dubiously gotten wealth, to whitewash not just their reputations but to actually create the ability to keep doing what they are doing. . . these are knowing acts of immorality.”

Despite his oratorical talents and populist arguments, Giridharadas and his team lost the debate. They simply could not parry against Bill Gates. This, essentially, was the counterargument of the opposing team, which drove home a good-billionaire narrative based on the Gates Foundation’s good deeds.

“You’re saying that Bill and Melinda Gates are immoral despite the fact that they set up the Gates Foundation, operating in accordance with the belief . . . that all lives are equal,” noted Princeton University philosopher Peter Singer. “The Gateses have given so far 50 billion dollars to endow that foundation, and there’s going to be more to come. You’re saying they’re immoral although they have undoubtedly already saved . . . several million lives, perhaps more than any other living person today.”

Variations on this winning argument have long played counterpoint to any criticism of the billionaire class. As high-profile political figures in US politics – from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – challenge the very existence of billionaires, they do so with considerable vulnerability. Because what they’re arguing for is an end to the Gates Foundation and, by extension, the deaths of millions of children. This talking point has become something of a conventional wisdom in the mainstream discourse on Gates, cited by so many people for so many years that it has become understood alongside the law of gravity and the certainty of death and taxes.

If there are two things most people know about the Gates Foundation, it’s the large sums of money it is giving away and the lives it is saving. “If you want to have a balanced, healthy, thoughtful perspective on Bill Gates, it has to start by understanding and processing the magnitude of what he has done, not by dismissing it,” notes Vox writer Kelsey Piper, citing the “millions” of lives Gates has saved. And when someone dares to put a critical lens on Bill Gates without kissing the ring, they will be notified: “Your article doesn’t even mention that Gates has saved millions of lives of the poorest people in the world,” the editor of Inside Philanthropy, David Callahan, noted in his criticism of the first piece I published on the foundation, a cover article in The Nation in early 2020.

As central as the lives-saved claim has become in the public discourse on Gates, it rests on a decidedly questionable foundation. It appears to have entered the public consciousness not through independent research and evaluation but, rather, through the rote recitation of the Gates Foundation and its vast PR machinery. “You know, there’s over six million people alive today that wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for the vaccine coverage and new vaccine delivery that we’ve funded,” Bill Gates noted at the American Enterprise Institute in 2014. “And so it’s very measurable stuff.”

A year earlier, however, Gates had said that his philanthropic funding had saved ten million lives. So, if saving lives is measurable, it’s not an exact science. As Gates’s numbers fluctuate year over year, one feature remains the same: the “lives saved” numbers always seem to come from the foundation or the groups it funds. The foundation funded and appears to have provided editorial direction on a book titled Millions Saved, published by the Center for Global Development (whose largest funder – more than $90 million – is the Gates Foundation).

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the recipient of more than $600 million from Gates, published a “Lives Saved Scorecard” in The Lancet, examining the lives Gates had saved. There’s also the “Lives Saved Tool” at Johns Hopkins University and another one from the Vaccine Impact Modelling Consortium. Both organisations are funded by Gates. Though the foundation works on a wide array of topics – from US education to African agriculture to family planning throughout poor nations – it devotes almost all its public relations firepower to promoting its work on global health and development because these are the areas where it can most forcefully point to success, to the lives it is saving.

Gates’s lives-saved arms race reached its zenith in 2017, after Warren Buffett, one of the world’s most renowned investors and richest men, asked Bill and Melinda Gates to reflect on what they had done with the 30 billion dollars he had given the foundation. “There are many who want to know where you’ve come from, where you’re heading and why,” Buffett’s letter noted. “Your foundation will always be in the spotlight. It’s important, therefore, that it be well understood.”

Excerpted with permission from The Bill Gates Problem: Reckoning with the Myth of the Good Billionaire, Tim Schwab, Penguin Business.